Vigée Le Brun at the Met

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So, as I mentioned in a previous post, there is an exhibit going on right now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City highlighting the work of Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun. She was one of the most sought-after and talented portrait painters of her time, and as this previous post explains, one of her paintings played a part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. Vigée Le Brun painted Queen Marie-Antoinette multiple times, and her paintings were prominent in the public mind: in addition to the portrait of the

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Marie Antoinette en Chemise [or “en gaulle”], 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Queen “en chemise” that caused a minor scandal in 1783, there was the painting of the queen with her children which didn’t entirely succeed in softening the queen’s reputation.

 

But Vigée Le Brun painted many more people than just Marie-Antoinette. She began painting as a young woman, was sought after among the elite of French society, escaped the French Revolution just before it exploded, moved from capital to capital painting prominent people, and continued to paint late into her life (she died at 86).

The exhibit at The Met includes 80 paintings, some of them of familiar figures to those of us familiar with late-18th-century France: Madame du Barry, the Duchesse de Polginac, Calonne, and Mesdames Adelaide and Victoire. There are also less familiar figures, some of them important men’s mistresses, some of them princes and princesses from across Europe, some of them noted intellectuals. What they all have in common, at least in Vigée Le Brun’s portraits, is a vibrancy and movement that you don’t see in many portraits. There are expressions on their faces, and they all look like they’re about to do or say something. They portraits are engaging. The commentary I listened to during my walk-through of the exhibit (I spent

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Portrait of Marie Antoinette, 1783 by Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

two hours there) suggested that this was because Vigée Le Brun herself was engaging and personable, and she drew out her subjects’ personality. It’s hard to say–one suspects that a large part of it was simply her skill as an artist.

The paintings are also visually stunning. I’ve seen images of the paintings, via the Internet, but they simply don’t do justice to the originals. There is an exquisite delicacy to the way  Vigée Le Brun handled fabrics, especially sheer fabrics like muslin fichus or wraps in ladies’ hair. The white dress worn by the Comtesse de La Châtre in her portrait, for instance, has delicate matte-white dots spread across the white satin fabric below. It’s a subtle but beautiful detail.

In fact, I’d say that “beauty” more or less characterizes all of Vigée Le Brun’s work. Everything she painted has a heightened elegance to it–it’s very much like arranged flowers. This wasn’t an artist interested in capturing people “warts and all”; she was interested in aesthetically beautiful paintings.

And that is more than alright by me. I’m not fond of modern art because it feels so self-indulgent; instead of creating something pleasurable, art is supposed to make us “think” (usually about humanity’s failings). I admit to just wanting a pretty picture. And boy does Vigée Le Brun deliver those!

I should also make a note of the colors: Vigée Le Brun used the most remarkable colors. They’re bright and bold and perfectly chosen. There are blues paired with golds, dramatic reds with black and white, a punch of pastel-colored flowers amid more somber grays and blues, and forest greens paired with royals blue and vibrant whites.

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Comtesse de la Châtre. 1789. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Did I mention that I adored this exhibition?

It was definitely worth the five-hour drive in the pouring rain, worth braving the streets of New York City, worth the $35 for parking and the $40 in tolls (yeah . . . the I-95 corridor is expensive!). And it was definitely worth the two hours that I spent there, drooling over the beauty of it all.

I was definitely intensely pleased when I got to see Marie Antoinette en Chemise and Marie Antoinette avec une Rose side-by-side. As the audio guide explained, it’s the first time the two have been exhibited side-by-side.

Why was I so excited? Well, again, I refer you to this post, but to give a quick overview of the story behind these paintings: Vigée Le Brun painted the portrait of Marie-Antoinette “en chemise” and presented it in public at a salon in 1783. “En chemise” means that Marie was in a white muslin or “chemise” dress. Now, a chemise was an undergarment that went beneath everything else, stays (“corset”) included. It was scandalous to show the queen in a portrait in what looked like her underclothing. It was too informal, too suggestive. So Vigée Le Brun took down that painting and quickly dashed off another one, with the queen in the same pose but wearing a more appropriate/regal blue satin gown.

In both portraits, you’ll notice, the queen is holding the same thing in her left hand: a rose. Not long after this painting was displayed, in 1785, a young adventuress named Jeanne de La Motte-Valois convinced a credulous Cardinal that she was friends with the Queen (she did it to steal a very expensive necklace). To win him over, she hired a prostitute (Nicole d’Oliva) to play the part of the queen (oh dear!), dressed her  in a white muslin dress and gave her a rose to hand to the Cardinal. Sound familiar? It seems pretty likely that Jeanne got the idea from the portrait of the Queen en chemise. In fact, one of Jeanne’s friends, Jacques Claude Beugnot, remembered that Jeanne had a candy box with a copy of Marie Antoinette en chemise painted on the inside of its lid!

And of course, the reason I started this blog way back when was to tell more of this story. I’d written an entire novel about it, but I wasn’t nearly done. Yes, this blog has shifted focus, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have an abiding interest in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace and everything related to it. I was even willing to make a harrowing trip into New York City to see this exhibition, just to get a glimpse of the originals of these two paintings. I was rewarded by more beauty than I’d even imagined. I went for the pair of paintings of Marie-Antoinette, but I stayed for the 78 other exquisite pieces of art.

(I would be lying if I said I didn’t sneak a few pictures while inside the exhibit, but I don’t want to share them on principle, and they aren’t very good anyway!)

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The National Gallery of Art and Vigée-Le Brun

So, I was at the National Gallery of Art the other day for a guided tour of the gallery’s statues. It was a great tour, and I really liked getting to know more about the statues that most people just walk by. But it was on my way out that I found something that totally made my day. I was on my way out of the gallery, walking past an open doorway, when what to my wondering eyes should appear, hanging on the wall above a roll-top desk, but this:

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I just about flipped out. I may have made some sounds of excitement that surprised the guard keeping watch over that set of rooms. I whipped out my camera and started snapping pictures. Glare is always a major problem when trying to take pictures, but I did my best.

Why was I so excited? Well, somewhat obviously, that is Marie-Antoinette. Perhaps less obviously, this image played an integral part in the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. I wrote a post on it here. The summary is this: Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, one of the finest painters of her day, was the queen’s favorite artist, and the queen had a penchant for discarding decorum. A fashion trend she helped set off was the craze for light, white muslin dresses like the one she’s wearing in this portrait. The trouble is that this dress resembled the underclothing of the day that people were shocked when this painting by Vigée-Le Brun was put on public display. Why has she been painted in her underwear? How tacky! Marie-Antoinette’s reputation took a hit.

Oh, but that wasn’t all. This painting also inspired the “Grove of Venus” scene in which a prostitute named Nicole d’Oliva dressed up in a very similar outfit to the one in this painting and handed a rose to Cardinal Rohan. (Also, there was a candy box with a copy of this painting on the underside of its lid. See this post.) This little stunt would later blow up into one of the most sensational trials of the century, one that deeply affected the public’s view of the Queen.

In any case, having written a whole novel about the topic, I was delighted to see this portrait hanging in the National Gallery. I had no idea it was there (silly me!). From what I understand, however, this is actually a period copy, not the original. A Google search seems in to indicate the original Vigée-Le Brun painting is in a private collection. I really don’t care, though. I was so incredibly pleased to see it that I almost started jumping up and down and pointing. People would have had no idea what the heck was so exciting, so I restrained myself.

Nearby was another lovely portrait, this one of Madame du Barry, the mistress of Louis XV and a lady who was not well-liked by Marie-Antoinette:

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The National Gallery also has two other Vigée-Le Bruns on display (she’s a fantastic portraitist, and I love almost everything she painted) and one not on display. So, if you happen to be in the Washington DC area and want to see these paintings (as well as all the other fabulous art), then stop by the National Gallery. It’s more than worth your time. (By the way, it’s not a Smithsonian; it’s funded/run by the Federal government, as I found out when I tried to get a discount with my Smithsonian membership card.)

Here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for the painting (notice the “Anonymous”):

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.46065.html

And here’s a link to the National Gallery’s listing for Vigée-Le Brun:

http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/artist-info.1953.html?artistId=1953&pageNumber=1

The Morning Walk

I spent some time studying in London a few years ago, and it was my pleasure, among other things, to have an art history class that included weekly visits to the many, wonderfuAn_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768l galleries in London. Among numerous different great works of art from many eras, a few stood out to me. They were almost invariably from the 18th century, the time of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace (‘m drawn to the aesthetic of the era).  Some of my favorites include An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (right, by Reynolds) and A Rake’s Progress (Hogarth). I didn’t see any in London, but I also love practically everything by Vigée-Le Brun. The paintings of the time are endlessly elegant, engaging, and (often)  humorous.

I was struck by the beauty and solemnity of The Morning Walk, or Mr. and Mrs.William Hallett, by Gainsborough in the National Gallery. Amongst the many aesthetically pleasing paintings, this one stood out to me. It’s beauty comes from the ethereal treatment of the setting, the dress, and the dog. The lady’s light, ephemeral dress and wrap dissolve into the background and into each other. The tones are muted, the background washed into tans, olive greens, and stormy blues. And, most intriguing to me, the brush strokes are fairly loose, leaving the impression of a world that is only three-quarters formed. It is reminiscent of the Impressionists, and that’s a good thing because I love Impressionists. It’s a departure from much of the artwork of the period, which was often painstakingly realistic.

I wanted some version of this painting for my wall but balked at the idea of getting an expensive print. Being rather more artistically talented than average (not to toot my horn too much–I’m no master), I decided to try my hand at reproducing the painting. I’m not particularly good with paints, and besides I don’t currently have a very good space to paint in. However, given the mistiness of the original work, and given the always-airy effect of chalk pastel, I settled on chalk pastels.

It wasn’t, perhaps, the best choice. Chalk pastel is incredibly, incredibly smudgy. I’m very careful about where I put my hands and fingers when I work, but even so it was impossible to keep things tidy. And the effects I was going for really do lend themselves much better to paint than pastels. I had a hell of a time getting the pastels to cooperate. At least once, I had to get out an exacto knife and scrape away the pastel and a layer of the board I was working on. I needed to add more white, but I wasn’t able to color over or erase what was already there. That board was black; I attempted to start with a green board, thinking it would be the best color to start with. I quickly found that there was far too much black in the background for me to begin with any other color.

When I get frustrated, I get lazy, so this picture sat for months as I gave it distrustful, sidelong glances and wondered why it didn’t just finish itself. Once I set to, though, it really wasn’t all that bad. I finally finished it a few weeks ago. The most frustrating part of the whole process, perhaps, is that my attempts to fix the chalk pastel in place with spray fixative failed. Something about the board I used, I think, made it so the pastel won’t stick. So all that hard work isn’t even fixed in place. One wrong finger, and it’ll be smudged all to hell. I’ve put it behind glass in a frame in hopes of protecting it. I suspect a lot of the pastel will come off onto the glass, but at least it won’t get ruined by accident.

On the upside, I still have my pencil-and-paper outline. I’m better at pencil than at pastels, so I can still (some day) make a lovely black-and-white pencil rendition of The Morning Walk. Heck, I could even transfer the outline to canvas and give the paint thing a go . . .

Anyway, here are a few images of the original painting and my drawing of it in stages.

The original by Gainsborough, now hanging in the National Gallery in London.

The original by Gainsborough, now hanging in the National Gallery in London.

The pencil outline beginning of my drawing.

The pencil outline beginning of my drawing.

Filling in the background.

Filling in the background, which began black.

Completing Mr. William Hallett. Notice that the black of his suit is blacker than the black around it; I had to erase the accumulated dust that had muddied the black of his suit.

Completing Mr. William Hallett. Notice that the black of his suit is blacker than the black around it; I had to erase the accumulated dust that had muddied the black of his suit.

And the finished product. Not too shabby. Not great, but good enough to hang on my wall with pride.

And the finished product. Not too shabby. Not great, but good enough to hang on my wall with pride.

The Artwork of Versailles

A young Marie Antoinette.

A young Marie Antoinette. By Jean-Baptiste Charpentier le Vieux. Currently hanging in the second antechamber of the Dauphin.

I was going to write a blog post based on the pictures I’d taken of various artwork at the Chateau de Versailles. This was meant to complement the other two posts I’ve created to share the pictures I took at the palace.

However.

I stumbled upon Google Earth Project’s collection of Versailles’ art and was shamed into submission. Google has officially taken over the world. I’m aware this (meaning Google Art not Google world dominance, which is old news) is not something brand new, which is comforting since the end of the Mayan calendar is near. (This whole Google Art Project makes me fear that the end of the Mayan calendar will lead directly into the beginning of the Age of Google. A Google-apocalypse.)

Too bad I didn’t cotton on to the Google Art Project earlier. Everyone from the National Ballet of Canada to the Latvian National Museum of Art are part of this amazing effort.

Here’s the link to the collection of the Chateau de Versailles: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/palace-of-versailles/

And here, you can do a walk-through of the palace: http://www.googleartproject.com/collection/palace-of-versailles/museumview/

The entirety of the collection is, naturally, worth a look. You can click on the pictures to zoom in, and click details to get some in-depth information about each artwork. Many of them also have educational videos included.

I admit to being most interested in the portraits, especially the ones of people I don’t know well, such as Louis de France, Duke of Burgundy or Maria Leszczinska. But it’s good to see better-known portraits like this one of Louis XIV, or this one of Marie Antoinette and her family.

Read more . . . Continue reading

The Long-Lost Painting

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of John Everett Millais at the Tate Britain Museum. I didn’t know any of Millais’s work except for Ophelia. I enjoyed all the paintings and wanted to buy one of the books with all the paintings in it. Of course, that was way too expensive for a poor student, so I got postcards instead, which were ideal and made a pretty collage on my wall.

One of my favorite paintings was Hearts in Trumps. I believe that the description under the painting noted that Millais had based his painting off an early painting of a group of three women–I remembered that factoid but couldn’t remember what the original painting was and who painted it. I was sure, though, that the original was painted in the 18th century and was therefore of interest to me.

I’ve been looking casually for month, trying to find the painting. Today I hit upon gold: I found the painting. It’s The Ladies Waldegrave by Joshua Reynolds.  Instead of playing cards like in the Millais portrait, the ladies in this painting are sewing (they have their “work” in front of them).

What relevance does this have to the Affair of the Dimond Necklace? Well, nothing except that it is a beautiful painting from the time period in question. It shoes the laides’ hair, makeup, and clothing, and it shows them during their leisure time. Most women of the time spent hour upon hour sewing and embroidering. Ladies made fantastic works of art. Some women liked it, some did not, but almost every woman did it. Even the most elite ladies did fine needlework to pass the time.